In 1946, the sleepy Texas town of Texarkana was rocked by a string of eight violent assaults, five of them resulting in murder. These crimes were later dubbed the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, named after the late-night timing of the attacks, and the unknown perpetrator become known as the “Phantom Killer.” It was truly a horrific crime and it’s no surprise that it’s one that would attract exploitation filmmakers. Filmmakers like Texarkana resident Charles B. Pierce.

Charles B. Pierce was, in every way, a product of gonzo drive-in exploitation. In the early ’70s, he rocked the grindhouse world with The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), an absurd docudrama about a killer Sasquatch tormenting a sleepy village in Arkansas. It was his first true hit, successful enough to spawn a wave of Sasquatch-ploitation (another topic for another time), and kick-start his career. He’d go on to make a few more films in the years that followed, but it wouldn’t be until 1976 that he’d release his magnum opus, The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

On paper, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a simple dramatization of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. The film follows dual perspectives, dogged police captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) and the hooded Phantom (legendary stunt coordinator Bud Davis), always two steps ahead of him. Of course, it’s not a total dramatization—plenty of case details and people have been changed (including all names, natch), but for the most part, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a fairly straight adaptation of the crime spree.

The same cannot be said about the filmmaking, for The Town That Dreaded Sundown is something of a structural nightmare. Most notable is the Boggy Creek-esque faux documentary framing of the film, with a deadpan narrator rattling off historical facts and character introductions. It’s an unnecessary flourish that doesn’t add much to the film besides sheer absurdity, considering everything that follows is as far from standard documentary fare as a film can get.

Yes, the real meat of The Town That Dreaded Sundown is the “historical recreations,” all of which are some truly unhinged nonsense. The tone and style of the film seems to fluctuate at will, sliding in and out of very distinct structures and vibes. The first, and most prominent, is the investigation around the murders, following J.D. (the film’s stand-in for M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas) and the Texarkana PD as they attempt to track down the Phantom Killer. This portion of the film plays out like a straight true crime story, going into excessive minutiae of the officers’ daily lives and their fruitless attempts to catch the killer. There’s plenty of police procedural mumbo jumbo to contend with, as well as a Psycho-inspired killer psychoanalysis scene, where the detectives sit around and play armchair psychologist for the anonymous killer (“this man is definitely a sadist, motivated by a strong, uh, sex drive”). Like many attempts at this trope in post-Psycho horror cinema, it doesn’t work.

None of the acting or writing during these investigations are particularly good, but one thing Pierce nails in The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a particular sweaty Texas vibe, à la The Getaway. Everything in the daytime looks scorched and sun-baked, captured with muted colors and heavy shadows. There is a very “real” quality to the landscape that many slashers lack, with the Texarkana backwoods looking and feeling like tangible locations rather than always menacing woods.

In contrast, the Phantom Killer’s scenes feel like they take place in another world. Riffing off the likes of Black Christmas and other proto-slashers, the Phantom Killer’s scenes focus entirely on the hooded maniac butchering anyone unlucky enough to be in his way. Make no mistake, despite predating Halloween by two years and Friday the 13th by four, The Town That Dreaded Sundown’s Phantom segments are pure slasher, focusing on the killer butchering innocents (mostly teenage lovers) in increasingly brutal and outlandish ways. Even the way the Phantom Killer looks and moves feels like a precursor to the iconic Jason Voorhees, seemingly teleporting around the forest, bulky frame hidden by a denim jacket and a white sack over his head (Friday the 13th Part 2, anyone?), portraying a total lack of emotion when carrying out murders.

However, unlike Jason, the Phantom Killer is no relentless killing machine. Plenty of his targets slip out of his grasp, and when he does get ahold of them, kills are sloppy and brutal, the killer operating less like a scalpel and more like a sledgehammer. Of course, it’s impossible to discuss The Town That Dreaded Sundown without mentioning the notable exception to this rule. Yes, there is a scene where somebody is killed by being stabbed by a knife-tipped trombone over and over. Yes, it’s played for drama. No, it does not work at all.

But not everything in The Town That Dreaded Sundown is serious. Despite their relative strengths, both aspects of the film have a bit of what I like to call “Last House on the Left disease,” where the tension and scares constantly undermine themselves with the addition of some truly bizarre and horribly out of place hijinks. Most of this comes in the form of Officer A.C. “Spark Plug” Benson, played by Pierce himself. I won’t beat around the bush: Spark Plug is walking, talking slapstick bait who serves no purpose in the film and detracts from every scene he’s in. This is to say nothing of the entire scenes devoted to what can only be described as shenanigans, ranging from a Dukes of Hazzard-esque wild car chase to what appears to be a scene-long Some Like it Hot tribute.

While the humor in The Town That Dreaded Sundown doesn’t work, and is by most measures tired and flat, I’d argue that it actually helps the viewing experience. It makes the discord of the film more obvious, its quirks and jarring tonal shifts more pronounced, turning a sloppy slasher/thriller hybrid into pure, uncut, drive-in insanity. Sure, none of the pieces of The Town That Dreaded Sundown fit together by any extent of the imagination, but with a movie so effortlessly gonzo, it’s worth considering that maybe, just maybe, they don’t have to.

For a long time, that was the end of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. After all, there’s not really anywhere to go after adapting the entire case, right? Well, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon disagreed, because in 2014, he directed The Town that Dreaded Sundown, a meta-sequel that presents a series of modern copycat killings while interrogating the legacy of the original.

Instead of the first film’s police protagonists, The Town that Dreaded Sundown focuses on Jami Lerner (Addison Timlin), a high school senior who attends one of Texarkana’s real-life Halloween revival screenings of The Town That Dreaded Sundown with Corey Holland (Spencer Treat Clark), a boy she’s been interested in. The two leave the screening to go to the old lover’s lane, and wouldn’t you know it, a copycat phantom murders Corey and sends Jami back to the drive-in with a message. “This is for Mary. Make them remember.” And under a screen showing the infamous trombone kill to an eager crowd, she emerges, bloodied and crawling. The nightmare begins anew.

Much like Wes Craven’s hit Scream (1996), The Town that Dreaded Sundown aims to be a sendup of the classic slasher while also examining how the film has shaped Texarkana, questioning the morality of adapting real murders into popcorn-ready schlock. They’re noble goals indeed, but in practice, The town That Dreaded Sundown can’t execute its vision.

The first, and most glaring, issue is how The Town that Dreaded Sundown treats its new victims. Corey serves as ground zero for the film’s theoretically more sympathetic approach, with some lengthy and heartbreaking scenes showing not only Jami’s reaction, but his funeral and his high school vigil. It’s a fascinating approach at showing the community-shattering effect that a slasher rampage would likely cause, but it’s instantly rendered weightless by the exploitative way nearly every other victim is dispatched, most of which are captured with sweeping camera movements and stylized blood spatter, with the aftermath of their deaths nearly instantly glossed over. Ironically, in its attempts to critique the violence of the original, it only ends up creating a more aestheticized portrait of carnage, lacking any of the genuinely uncomfortable brutality of the first and replacing it with generic “pretty” violence. It’s a baffling choice, reeking of a creative team that wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. They’re individually interesting approaches to a slasher film, but they are so thematically opposed that both sides ring hollow.

As far as examining the legacy of the first film goes, The Town that Dreaded Sundown doesn’t fare much better. “Real people died you know, young man,” a preacher tells a teenage fan of Town That Dreaded Sundown at the start, and that’s about as far as The Town that Dreaded Sundown looks into the issue. There are brief attempts at looking at how the drive-in classic is tied to the town’s identity, but beyond merely observing how such a connection exists, The Town that Dreaded Sundown doesn’t go anywhere with the commentary, and a brief scene where Jami tracks down Charles B. Pierce Jr. (Denis O’Hare playing a version of the real Chuck Pierce Jr.) that only exists to further the film’s “Who is the copycat Phantom Killer?” angle.

Unfortunately, that side of the film isn’t very good, either. The mystery, while promising, has a reveal straight out of Scooby-Doo that’s played completely straight, even as the script stumbles over itself trying to give motivation to a character’s murderous actions. Thankfully, the character work is quite nice, giving Jami a clearly defined character caught between a future outside of Texarkana and a need to decipher the town’s greatest secret. On the downside, Addison Timlin doesn’t do a great job capturing the inner conflict of her role, and the rest of the characters are too much of broad caricatures to have anything approaching Jami’s turmoil.

Still, The Town that Dreaded Sundown isn’t all bad. The cinematography, while unnecessarily showy at times, is quite impressive. In particular, the first scene features some genius framing, and a chase through a cornfield features a wide variety of interesting angles. Plus, the editing is quite clever as well, with montages of the town reacting to the murders interspersed with footage from The Town that Dreaded Sundown as a simple shorthand for history repeating itself. While the film does suffer from a glossy, digital aesthetic that doesn’t quite fit the subject matter or tone, the visuals are still strong enough to stand out as a remarkable aspect of The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

But it really doesn’t matter how neat the camerawork is, or how clever the time-bending is, or how well-done the editing is, because at the end of the day, The Town that Dreaded Sundown fails to meet its lofty satirical goals, devolving into the sort of obnoxious post-Scream meta horror that was best left in the 2000s. If the meta concept intrigues you, this one might be worth a look, but for everyone else, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a safe skip.

Next: Crypt of Curiosities: The Short Films of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani